California officials turn to zero cash bail to reduce jail populations and COVID-19 contagion

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A bail bonds shop. During the COVID-19 pandemic, California officials are turning to zero cash bail and releasing inmates early. Zero cash bail could be permanent if voters pass Senate Bill 10 in November. Photo credit: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons.

Jails and prisons have become COVID-19 hotspots since the pandemic began. Inmates live side-by-side in small spaces, making them highly susceptible to coronavirus.

“We're hearing about all these horror stories of thousands of inmates that are catching it, and obviously they're in very close confines, even if they weren't subject to overcrowding,” criminal defense attorney Daniel Perlman says. “The jails aren't designed for social distancing, whether it's inside cells or in common areas or even just walking through the hallways. It's a very real concern.”

The federal prison at Terminal Island in San Pedro, for instance, just had its eighth coronavirus-related death. More than 600 inmates and staff in California state prisons are infected with coronavirus — most of them in a single prison in Chino.

“The inability of the system to guarantee their safety from this virus right now is really troubling and scary,” Perlman adds.

And so, California criminal justice officials are trying to empty jails via zero bail. 

The California Judicial Council recently set bail to $0 for most misdemeanors and lower-level felonies. So instead of waiting in jail for trial, inmates are being released. 

Before COVID-19, LA county jails held 17,076 inmates. Now that number is down by more than one third. But that doesn’t mean the jails are empty. They were overcrowded before and are now at capacity. 

For inmates, it’s still tough to maintain their space.  

Eunisses Hernandez, Executive Director of La Defensa, says, “That jail [in downtown LA] is not a cell-by-cell setting. People are in a huge dormitory warehouse setting where they sleep in bunk beds that are three levels.”

The inmates who have been released are glad to be out, says L.A. County public defender Ricardo Garcia

People in custody are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents. And they’re experiencing all the same anxieties and fears … with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic. And in the jails, they are unable to exercise those same precautions that we're engaging in. And so, their anxiety is obviously great. Having the ability to get out and find safety at home or within their communities was a great relief.”

Police, however, aren’t finding relief. They say they’ve had to deal with criminals taking advantage of the policy. 

Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna recently told a Public Safety Committee meeting that 160 people they arrested were released with no bail.

Out of the 160, LBPD listed 18 individuals who were repeat offenders. That means they were taken into custody and were released on zero bail, then committed another offense. 

The Los Angeles Police Department has seen something similar. In the first 30 days of the zero bail policy, they arrested 213 individuals multiple times.

They account for about 5% of all of those booked on misdemeanors or felonies, according to the Los Angeles Times. That’s a slight increase in repeat offending. 

“It's a revolving door,” Roger Sayegh, owner of Midnight Bail Bonds, says. “They keep on reoffending because there's nothing to really stop them. You're not paying for anything. It's no burden to them to reoffend. And that's where it's kind of getting scary right because now, California is going to jeopardize public safety.

Sayegh says his business has decreased tremendously since the beginning of the California stay-at-home order. He’s suffered significant losses, estimating revenue losses of 50% compared to this same time last year.

He says his livelihood is on the line due to this.

But State Senator Robert Hertzberg, who represents Van Nuys, doesn't seem sympathetic.

“[The bail bonds business] has become a corporate raid on individuals and a payday lending-type operation. You see these stories taking people 10, 15 years to pay off their debts to the bail companies,” says Hertzberg. 

Hertzberg authored Senate Bill 10, which puts the decision to release an inmate into the hands of a judge and a computer algorithm — instead of requiring the inmate to pay to get out.

“[SB 10] gives somebody an opportunity to look a judge in the eye, look at their record, and determine if they should be in jail or whether there's a lesser alternative. It is a fair, humane system and avoids this ridiculous system that costs taxpayers money, doesn't keep people safer, and is fundamentally immoral,” says Hertzberg.

But a referendum effort from the bill’s opponents pushed the law to a ballot initiative, to be decided this November. 

Despite the repeat offender headlines and other perceived downsides, Hertzberg says rethinking bail is the right thing to do. 

“It's horrible to take advantage of people. And it's horrible that we have a system in place that advantages people who have money versus people who don't. You shouldn't be judged by the size of your wallet. You should be judged based upon the size of your public safety. And that's what SB-10 does.”

As the world changes due to COVID-19, it remains to be seen whether the changes to our criminal justice system will last. Voters will decide in November.